Do we really need to "gamify" everything?

Do we really need to

It's been trendy for the past few years to "gamify" your life, but should it be necessary at all?

For the past several years, there's been a trend to "gamify" every aspect of your life. While gamification can be truly useful, I think it's poorly implemented for the most part and wish it would stop except where it truly makes sense.

As an aside, I'll disclaim at the start that I find the neologism "gamification" to be awkward and rather unpleasant. But I'll stick with it for the sake of consistency, if nothing else.

Gamification, for the uninitiated, employs the concept of game mechanics to engage you in desired behavior, especially when it comes to receiving awards and rewards for completing tasks.

I admit that I've been bitten by the gamification bug a few times. I remember my first Palm device came with a game — literally a game — called Giraffe. Giraffe encouraged you to learn how to use Graffiti, the text input system used on the Palm, but playing a game that had you blast words as you saw them, by writing them in the Graffiti system. That's perhaps a quite literal example of gamification — learning a practical (if somewhat specialized) skill by playing a game.

Gamification has been used to benefit in recent years. Foldit is one outstanding example. Foldit is a crowdsourced science research project that studies protein folding, used in both drug design and disease research. Foldit turns protein folding into a game that participants can play; the working theory is that people can intuitively figure out solutions to tricky protein folding problems more efficiently than brute-force computing can.

Gamification techniques have also successfully been implemented in corporate training programs. Even the hugely popular educational site Khan Academy uses gamification to encourage students to improve their abilities by following skill trees on their "Learning Dashboard," a mechanism similar to that used in role playing games to improve character abilities.

Fitness devices often incorporate game mechanics into their software, so you can unlock achievements and compare your workout schedule to your friends, for example. Social networking services rely on gaming concepts like achievements and badges to get you to participate.

Where makers of software and devices often fail, however, is trying to turn the mundane into something fun and engaging. The quickest way to get me to stop using your product is to make it go from something I want to use to a chore. The most pleasurable thing in the world eventually becomes mundane or even loathsome if it's forced on you over and over again.

Take fitness wearables, for example. Endeavour Partners estimates that more than half of the devices people have purchased to track their activity go unused after six months. Clearly the gamified elements of using these devices - the social and goal reinforcement elements - have failed to resonate with a very large percentage of their users.

Part of my concern is the indiscriminate use of gamification. Not every aspect of our lives needs to be gamified in order for us to do it. I don't need to gamify doing my laundry or my grocery purchases or maintenance on my car to make those events something that need to be done routinely, yet there are apps and services that try to do exactly that. I certainly don't want my career reduced to gamified targets, but that's exactly what's happened in some enterprise environments..

Gamification can be used to solve problems — in some cases, important ones — and it can, under the right circumstances, give you the motivation you need to succeed at whatever task you've set up for yourself. Applied wrong, gamification can have the opposite effect, demotivating you and turning routine events and tasks into chores you want to avoid.

Gamification, especially once it's institutionalized, can ultimately lead to a sense of dread, even paranoia, thinking that every aspect of how you work and live needs to be measured and quantified. That can stifle your creativity and your flexibility.

No game is fun forever. Your attention shifts to other things, and your expectation for reward continues to increase, eventually to an unreachable level. Gamification may work for some people and some tasks in the short term, but I don't think it's a sustainable trend.

At least I hope not. What does gamification ultimately say about us societally? That we need to be coaxed into appropriate adult behavior by being promised rewards? Extrinsic motivation is transitory and temporary. Eventually the motivation needs to be intrinsic — finding the task rewarding for its own sake, not for a virtual pat on the head.

Does gamification work for you? Or are you as over it as I am? Let me know in the comments.

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Peter Cohen

Mac Managing Editor of iMore and weekend Apple Product Professional at a local independent Apple reseller. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Reader comments

Do we really need to "gamify" everything?


I prefer the school of "gamification" which, rather than being reward driven, is delight driven. iOS 7 is gamified not by giving out stickers but by physics, particles, and other interactions that make it fun to use.

There's likely place for both, especially if they're well and thoughtfully implemented, but to paraphrase the Incredibles — if everything is incentivized, nothing is.

Perfect. I think of "gamification" as "incorporating UIKit dynamics etc. into non-game apps." And there are tons of ways to do that to add liveliness to apps.

Of course, it can be overdone. Anybody can make a flashy attention-getting app that screams "I'm special." The real trick is to build your app so the user feels special when they use it. Far more subtle and elusive goal.

Physics, particles, etc., that many of us have turned off because of their system drain, and lack of value. I don't want my phone to "delight" me. I just want it to be an effective, reliable, and comprehensive tool. Being attractive as well isn't necessary, but is a bonus. iOS7 certainly lost on that last account unless you enjoy that 80's corporate pure white look (because color is so...messy!).

I disagree. I find iOS 7 to be very beautiful. There is beauty in simplicity. It brought me back from Windows Phone (which I also like due to the minimalism). I consider my 5s to be very fact with all of the transparency and blurs, I daresay it's more colorful than previous iOS versions.

Edit: I didn't notice it looks like you've turned off most of the graphical effects of iOS 7 so I can see why you'd feel it's bland.

I'm not sure how going in Notes, for example, from a pleasing,charming, yellow lined paper interface to stark white is "more colorful", but I guess we are looking for different things.

Wouldn't it be nice, not to mention novel, for Apple to simply let us choose how our interface looks? Offer several options for folks to, I don't know, customize their own device that they bought and paid for? I know, crazy talk - at least when it comes to iOS products.

I'm pretty sure the surge of runners in my neighbourhood is the direct result of this type of endeavour. I guess there's always a upside to everything especially if a small percentage go on to adopt the healthier lifestyle for the rest of their lives. But I still believe that being passionate about anything requires a deeper appreciation and ultimately commitment of whatever it is you intend on doing. Still, it's great to have some tools to make it even more interesting.

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I find it depressing that we are moving more towards a planet of mouse-clickers for random rewards, when we were young we dreamed of jet packs, and bases on the moon. interesting article.

Gamification is a tool used to deceive kids into doing what they don't want to do. What happens when they grow up? They see through the gimmick because they are now thinking for themselves. Kind of embarrassing that people are letting modern tech treat them like kids.

No, gamification is a tool used to make otherwise boring tasks somewhat fun. I hate to just flat out run. However, I love to run while running away from and killing fake zombies.

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I did try the app Fitocracy which adds a level of RPG to fitness, but after a couple weeks of trying to put in all the information to get the EXP, I ended up just uninstalling it. There was too much info that needed to be kept track of to be rewarding in any way. At the end of the day, the exercise itself was fine enough and didn't need an extra layer of "fun"

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"Gamification, for the uninitiated, employs the concept of game mechanics to engage you in desired behavior ..."

And, also ... wait for it ...

... wait for it ...


I'm over the term gamified. Every time I read or hear this word I want to beat my head against the wall. For some reason I imagine a hipster trying to sound even smarter by using seemingly made up words.

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First: did you know that LinkedIn, Amazon, Facebook, Loyalty programs etc. are all gamified? So gamification does not mean it's in your face, it can be very subtle and hidden, and here is an analysis for Amazon and LinkedIn
Second: we already gamify kids today a lot with wrong things. We give them grades, stars, stickers, SAT-scores etc. and destroy their interest by making it all about grades, stars, sticker, SAT-scores
Third: this is also true for adults. When it's just about commissions, bonus, more money, then we are destroying their interest.
Fourth: gamification works in a lot of areas, we have collected over hundred examples with their facts and figures:
Healthcare is just one area, learning and education another one, online communities, another one, doing better work as well etc.
Fifth: in-app purchases is in games. Games are games, but not gamification
Sixth: gamification is not about rewards or competition. It's about giving you feedback and information how you are doing, where you can get better, how others are doing (to maybe help them), to have a narrative, learn, master, belong, etc. A reward if used in gamification (and not all gamification approaches are using rewards) is just information.

Gamification is a way more sophisticated concept than you may think from superficially scratching the surface and reducing it to points and badges. Gamification is an empathy based process that helps people to have gameful experiences and create added value for themselves, which indirectly may created value for a company, organization, society...